I love conflict. For me, healthy conflict is an important part of any working relationship. It appears, however, that I’m not alone in this thinking. In fact, a very clever chap, Patrick Lencioni, defined the five characteristics of a highly effective team. The second characteristic is, healthy conflict.
Having just been part of a team that went through the formal training associated with Lencioni’s theory, I started thinking about whether this theory could and should be applied to client relationships.
No matter how much we strengthen our internal team’s relationships, we’ll ultimately not move forward with enough pace if our client relationships don’t improve as well. If I’m soiling myself every time conflict arises between a client and I then know something is not quite right.
So, how do we go about building a healthy relationship with our clients?
According to Lencioni, highly functional teams have the following characteristics:
- Trust – they start from the foundation of trust. A degree of vulnerability about strengths and weaknesses builds trust and for a team to function well, everyone must believe that best interests lie at the heart of each individual.
- Healthy conflict – my favourite. Not being afraid to challenge, question, debate and air opinions on ideas and actions. A strong team should mean everyone within it feels empowered to speak up and have their voice heard.
- Commitment – this is about buy-in. You’re never going to get everyone agreeing from the off. Most teams will still have disagreement about a direction taken. However, importantly the team will have complete buy in that the decision has been made and we’re moving forward.
- Accountability – my least favourite. Everyone holds each other accountable for their actions. A healthy team doesn’t need a cruel ruler dishing out punishment and keeping everyone on track. They should each be ensuring the other is doing what they say they’ll do
- Results – winning for the team. While individuals will and should always be called out for exceptional work, a strong team will always have the bigger picture in mind and share collectively in the successes of the team
I think as an industry, we get this right internally a lot more than we give ourselves credit. We tend to be more comfortable with trust and feedback than other professions and everyone knows how much we love to slap each other’s backs – just look at how many awards there are out there. But when looking at these characteristics through the lens of a client relationship, things become a little more troublesome.
I’m going to flip these five pillars of a strong team and turn them into their dysfunctional cousins. What’s more, I’ll try and describe the dysfunctions from the perspective of a client relationship.
- It’s all about the money – the client sees the agency as always sniffing out the extra dollar or pound without any regard for what’s in the client’s best interest. Equally, the agency believes the client is trying to squeeze them at every turn and is constantly on the watch for scope creep and creative payment plans.
- Put up and shut up – the agency only sees its role as functional delivery. It’s not there to challenge the client or offer a different perspective. The client sees the agency as lazy but also doesn’t want their views (or their boss) questioned.
- Go ahead, it’s your budget – the client refuses to sign off on a campaign or an idea officially but instead just says ‘if you think it’s how you want to spend the budget then go ahead’ – total lack of commitment. Equally, the agency reluctantly executes a set of tasks and offhandedly informs the client ‘well it’s your budget, if you want to spend it like this then go ahead’.
- It’s their fault – the agency is the client’s perfect scapegoat. When shit hits the fan, it will be the agency’s head that the axe falls upon. Equally, when the agency is brought in front of the judging panel, the first place they’ll point to is their non-committed ‘daft’ client who didn’t give them the necessary support.
- I win – here, it’s all about one-upmanship. A constant murmur of, ‘we won that battle’ rather than a commitment to building results for the team. The client tends to feel that they deserve the credit for dragging the agency with them and surprise surprise the agency feels the same about the client.
Can you spot a dysfunctional characteristic within these five? If so, it might be worth going back to the characteristic before the one you seem to be having a problem with. If you’re suffering from a lack of healthy conflict with a client, it might be because neither of you trust each other enough.
I can’t tell you how to improve your client relationships, only you will know the necessary detail to make specific changes. However, this piece should serve as a guide for potentially spotting opportunities for improvement and identifying which areas may need some work.
Do invest some time reading Patrick’s book and in your next team building session, have a think about whether what you learnt could be applied to your clients as well as each other.
As the chief engagement officer at Hotwire PR, John Brown oversees innovation and digital communications, helping his clients to creatively engage their audiences by providing creative counsel ranging from start-ups to publicly traded businesses.